Posted On 08/01/2014 By In How-To

HOW TO: Clean Your Keyboard and Keycaps

By now, we’ve pretty much all heard the line about keyboards being dirtier than toilet seats. And, uh, umm, excuse me while I go vomit behind the dumpster.

Anyway, I’m sure YOUR keyboard isn’t that dirty, and mine sure as hell isn’t. So this guide goes out to all the gross dudes.

Maintenance Cleaning

As they say, prevention is the best cure. The best way to ensure your keyboard doesn’t acquire toilet-status is to maintain it regularly. A maintenance cleaning entails a simple shake-out and a wipe-down. How often you need to do this will depend on your personal hygiene level, but for most people, once a week is fine.

DO:

  • Step 1 (Shake Out) – Grab your keyboard, take it to the nearest trashcan, turn it upside down, and shake it out. (Don’t worry about removing the keycaps.) Even if you obsessively wash your hands and don’t eat around your keyboard, it will inevitably soak up dust, hair, and other crud. Shake it out!
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  • Step 2 (Wipe Down) – Next, wipe down the keyboard’s surface and keycaps. Use a paper towel slightly dampened with water, lens wipes, or for a little more germ-killing action, hand wipes. These types of wipes are gentle on skin and plastic, and will effectively remove dirt and skin oils from your keyboard without harming the plastic. To get between the keys, fold your damp paper towel or wipe and use the edge. Sticky cleaning gel can also come in handy for between keys.

DON’T:

  • Use a dripping wet cloth or apply liquid cleaner directly to the keyboard or keycaps.
  • Use straight isopropyl alcohol or stronger solvents. Usually, isopropyl will be okay, but sometimes it can react with keyboard plastic and fog it up — I once ruined an IBM Model F XT case this way. Anything stronger than isopropyl alcohol — just don’t do it.
  • Blow compressed air into your keyboard. While this method is effective at getting dirt out from underneath keys, it can also force grit into your switches. Shake your keyboard out instead. Or if you must use air, go from blow to suck.

If you take a minute or two to maintain your keyboard every week — or even just when you notice some dirt — you shouldn’t have to do a deep cleaning more than once a year. But when you let it get to that point…

Deep Cleaning

Here’s how to really get your keyboard spic ‘n span. This is also a great procedure to follow if you buy a used keyboard — having your keyboard covered in your own grime is one thing, but a stranger’s grime is a whole new level of shame. Don’t do it!

DO:

  • Step 1: Remove your keycaps. I strongly recommend a wire keypuller; it’s too easy to damage your keycaps using a cheap plastic keypuller. There’s a proper technique, too — use the keypuller to hook opposite diagonal ends of the keycaps and gently wiggle them off. Put the keycaps in a watertight plastic container, such as Mom’s tupperware.
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  • Step 2: Denture tabs. Fill the container with hot water from your tap, and drop in about 3 effervescent denture cleaning tabs. Make sure all the keys are submerged, seal the container, and shake it around for about 30 seconds. Then, let it sit for 30-60 minutes while you clean the keyboard itself.
  • Step 3: Shake down. With the keycaps removed from your keyboard, shaking it is super effective. Shake all the crud out of your keyboard.
  • Step 4: Cleaning, part 1. Use a lightly damp paper towel to clean out any major crumbs or dust bunnies that shaking didn’t dislodge. I emphasize — lightly damp. Switches like to suck in moisture via capillary action. Don’t let them do that.
  • Step 5: Cleaning, part 2. Use lightly damp q-tips to clean between all the switches and remove any remaining gunk. Although I don’t recommend isopropyl alcohol for cleaning the exterior of your keyboard or your keycaps, it’s generally OK to use it between the switches. You’ll either be contacting the PCB directly or a metal plate, neither of which will be harmed by isopropyl. Finally, use a damp paper towel or hand wipes to clean the keyboard’s exterior. Great, almost done!
  • Step 6: Rinsing and drying keycaps. Have your caps soaked for at least 30-60 minutes? Great. Give the sealed container a good few shakes to dislodge any final crud, and pour out the old (maybe brown) water. Rinse a few times with clean water. Finally, shake each keycap one-by-one to get as much water as possible out of the stems. This is particularly important for buckling spring caps, which have deep crevices from which water does not easily evaporate. At this point, you have two options. You can air dry the caps overnight, or alternatively, tie them in a pillowcase and throw in your dryer on LOW heat for about 15 minutes.
  • Step 7: Reassembly. Once keycaps are fully dry, check again to make sure there’s no moisture left. You don’t want to put your caps back on if there’s still water in the stems. Once you’re sure, reassemble your keyboard and you’re done!

DON’T:

  • Do anything I told you not to do during a maintenance cleaning.
  • Also, be EXTREMELY cautious with the amount of liquid solvent you use around the switches. This goes for water as well. Switches love to drink via capillary action, and if you use more than the bare minimum amount of liquid necessary, you’re taking a big risk. DON’T DO THAT!

Disaster Prevention: Keep the Food and Drink at Bay

Finally, as a word of caution, consider not eating or drinking around your mechanical keyboard. This is the quickest way to really nastify your keyboard. And plus, sooner or later, you’ll f*** up, and your keyboard will be there when you do. And it will be ugly. So… keep the food and drink where it belongs, boys.

There you have it — now you know how to maintain your keyboard’s cleanliness, and if the occasion should call for it, how to do a deep cleaning. If you have any questions, leave a comment.

Coming up next time: a spill recovery guide.

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Aaron

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